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Archives for March 2011

Colleges of crime

Mark Easton | 16:23 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


The man running the prison today selected as the trailblazer for the government's Payment by Results (PBR) policy says one secret of his success is removing "gates and locks" and trying to create a "college atmosphere" behind bars.

HM Prison Service flag

John Biggin, director of HMP Doncaster, helped convince Justice Secretary Ken Clark to award the contract to the private company Serco on the back of some exceptional results since taking over the running of the jail.

But Mr Biggin's methods may not be the liking of some backbench Conservatives and parts of the national press. He favours programmes involving arts and media, film-making and theatre for prisoners. Professional sports clubs including Doncaster Rovers FC, Featherstone Rovers RLFC and Yorkshire Cricket Club run academies inside the jail.

Having got rid of most of the “extremely stark” security measures inside Doncaster prison shortly after his arrival in late 2009, he painted the corridor walls and hung them with pictures. Serco stresses, of course, that the prison still conforms to all the security requirements of a category B jail.

The Ministry of Justice says the PBR element of the new contract to run Doncaster prison means that 10% of the contract price will only be payable if Serco manages to reduce the one-year reconviction rate of ex-inmates by 5%. Should the company do better than that, they get bonus payments.

The Ministry won't tell me what the total contract is worth (commercially sensitive, apparently), but they insist that, even if reconviction rates fall by the maximum 10%, it will still come in at £1m less than we currently pay.

It sounds like a win-win for the tax-payer, but how will people react if they believe that improving recidivism rates is at the cost of a less punishing regime?

In a recent interview with trade publication The Custodial Review, Mr Biggin explained what he tells the prisoners about his philosophy:

"I tell them that I will provide a whole range of innovative and interesting programmes that will engage, interest and work. Such as family involvement, sports academies, Restorative Justice Mediation instead of adjudications, arts and media, film making and much else besides. What they must do in return is buy into these initiatives and also recognise I have two red lines that must not be crossed. This is a zero tolerance policy for drugs and violence. It's the carrot and stick approach."

It is a system that appears to work. Doncaster, a category B prison and young offenders institution, has won a string of awards, with violence at a 16-year low. It has moved from being a jail with one of the lowest performance ratings to one of the highest in less than a year. John Biggin himself was named Public Servant of the Year last November at the Guardian public service awards.

The government clearly believes that the ideas being pioneered at Doncaster can deliver the results they want: lower reconviction rates, saving the taxpayer lots of money.

However, criminal justice is about more than budgets. There is a powerful lobby within the Conservative party which worries Ken Clark is going "soft" on the punishment element of custody.

When Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt announced in a speech last summer that he was rescinding rules introduced by Labour's Jack Straw on "acceptable activities" behind bars - rules which prevented governors from allowing any arts activities that might fail "the public acceptability test" - he was rounded on by the Daily Mail and ticked off by Downing Street.

Mr Blunt had argued that Prison Service Instruction number 50 was evidence of what he called "the last administration's flakiness under pressure".

He said: "At the slightest whiff of criticism from the popular press, policy tended to get changed and the consequence of an absurd overreaction to offenders being exposed to comedy in prison was this deleterious, damaging and daft instruction."

The Daily Mail responded by headlining: "Tory minister says taxpayer must fund balls and comedy workshops for criminals".

Here, though, is the alternative question: Are taxpayers prepared to fund the costs of punishment? It is not a free good. Locking people up and making their lives unpleasant is expensive both at the time and for years after their release, because the evidence shows that such regimes tend to make recidivism more likely, not less.

This is the question that lies at the heart of the current debate about prisons policy and payment by results. The answer may be in Doncaster.

Drug laws 'may make matters worse'

Mark Easton | 09:30 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


Police efforts to fight drug gangs tend to lead to more violence and an increase in murders, according to a new international study.

The authors, writing in the International Journal of Drug Policy, admit they were surprised by their own findings.

Their hypothesis was that the results "would demonstrate an association between increased drug law enforcement expenditures or intensity and reduced levels of violence". But that's not what they showed. Instead, they report:

"From an evidence-based public policy perspective and based on several decades of available data, the existing scientific evidence suggests drug law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates and that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting organisations involved in drug distribution could paradoxically increase violence."

Following a systematic review of 15 peer-reviewed studies in North America and Australia, the researchers at the University of British Columbia argue that policy makers must find "alternative regulatory models for drug control... if drug market violence is to be substantially reduced".

Members of Mexixan drug cartel 'La Familia Michoacana' are escorted by police in Mexico City


A version of the report was produced last year. Now an updated and peer-reviewed paper has been published and will be presented to a conference of drug experts in Beirut next week.

As the authors concede, their findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom and appear paradoxical. However, they have theories as to why the so-called "War on Drugs" may be making the world a more dangerous place.

One possibility, they say, is that: "by removing key players from the lucrative illegal drug market, drug law enforcement has the perverse effect of creating new financial opportunities for other individuals to fill this vacuum by entering the market."

The very act of disruption, they suggest, creates a more violent climate: "As dealers exit the illicit drug market, those willing to work in a high-risk environment enter, and that street dealing thereby becomes more volatile."

It is a problem well understood by Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which already tries to factor in the unintended consequences of intervening in a drugs market.

I wrote about this in 2009, revealing how one senior agent had listed the possible negative implications of seizing, say, a large shipment of heroin:

  • it might lead to higher prices, which in turn might lead to an increase in acquisitive crime 
  • it might mean poorer quality supply on the streets which might result in more drug-related deaths
  • disrupting an organised gang might trigger a "turf" war with increased violence, use of firearms, and murder

While recognising the harm that disrupting narcotics gangs can unwittingly cause, Soca does not accept that drug law enforcement is counter-productive. Around the same time, the influential think-tank UK Drugs Policy Commission was publishing a report suggesting that police might "tolerate" some drugs markets rather than risk the violence that would flow from breaking them up.

This week's paper from the University of British Columbia reminds readers of the steep increase in gun-related homicide that followed alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, and the spike in murder and violence that followed the dismantling of Colombia's Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels in the 1990s.

"In this second instance," the report's authors note: "The destruction of the cartels' cocaine duopoly led to the emergence of a fractured network of smaller cocaine producing cartels that increasingly used violence to protect and increase their market share."

The authors suggest that such violent crime "may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition when groups compete for massive profits without recourse to formal non-violent negotiation and dispute-resolution mechanisms".

Another theory to explain the paradox is that if the police get tougher, the drug dealers respond by getting more brutal themselves: "Target hardening, wherein vulnerable entities become increasingly militarised in the face of risk of attack, has occurred among drug organisations facing increased drug law enforcement," the report says.

The authors accept that there are some inevitable shortcomings in their analysis. Most of the studies they looked at involved longitudinal research without a randomised control group. In other words, they couldn't compare the results with what would have happened if there had been no drug law enforcement and therefore cannot state that police action against drug gangs actually causes violence.

Another limitation they considered at the beginning of their review was the risk of "publication bias". They noted that research funders "have traditionally been unsympathetic to critical evaluations of the 'war on drugs'," and that, as a result, there might be a lack of critical evaluation of potential negative consequences of drug law enforcement.

They needn't have worried. Of the eleven studies that analysed empirical data, 10 found "a significant association" between drug law enforcement and violence. The only paper that described "drug law enforcement having a positive effect on reducing drug market violence was based on a theoretical model" rather than hard data.

The clear sub-text of the analysis and its exhortation to policy-makers to find "alternative regulatory models for drug control" is that governments should consider decriminalisation or legalisation of illicit substances.

Since, politically, an end to the policy of prohibition is not on the table in Britain, the question is how police and crime agencies ensure that their actions don't end up making a bad situation even worse.

Will the Newlove report gather dust?

Mark Easton | 16:29 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011


When Helen (Conservative Baroness) Newlove was introduced to the media last November as the government's "champion for active, safer communities", the Home Secretary Theresa May said:

"I look forward to seeing the results of her work which will help us all build safer and more confident communities free from crime and anti-social behaviour."
Baroness Newlove


Was there an expectation that the report the Home Office had commissioned from the widow of murdered father Garry Newlove might lead to ministerial action on dealing with the kind of anti-social behaviour that ultimately led to her husband's tragic death?

Certainly, Lady Newlove must have heard sceptical voices suggesting her efforts would be ignored, because in introducing her list of proposals today she says this:

"To cynics who may be saying 'here we go again, another set of recommendations, another report to gather dust' I'd like them to remember the spirit that sustained, then rebuilt this shattered country during and after the war."

Lady Newlove makes it clear that her recommendations are "to government, to local agencies and to communities". Most of her ideas would seem to require at least Home Office or government support. Some are already coalition policies. I have highlighted the ones that I think would probably require ministerial backing.

• Community reward - where information provided by the community leads to a conviction the community is given a reward to spend on crime prevention work;
• Bling back - where money made from selling local drug dealers' assets is handed back to the neighbourhood they blighted;
• letting communities set their own local speed limits;
• taking crime maps to the next level so people can use them to report crime and ASB (anti-social behaviour) and agencies can publish details of what action was taken against offenders;
• giving the public a single point of contact through the roll out of the 101 number to report ASB;


These measures could be achieved without central government support:

• providing council tax rebates, or vouchers for local businesses and services, for people who take part in activism;
• asking Police and Crime Commissioners to commit at least one per cent of their budget to grass roots community groups to use or have a say on;
• encouraging public servants to go out into communities, volunteering their time and expertise to support local groups;
• pooling agencies' budgets, giving communities a choice in how it is spent; and
• changing the '9 to 5' culture of local agencies so they are there to respond when people need them most.


So what is the response of the home secretary to the Newlove recommendations? The Home Office was not sure whether Theresa May had read the report yet but said this to me:

"It is not one of those reports that we immediately respond to. We will look at it."

No minister was available for interview on the subject, but a short statement from the Minister for Crime Prevention James Brokenshire ran as follows:

"Since her appointment Baroness Newlove has been working tirelessly to inspire, challenge, support and learn from areas across the country. I look forward to seeing how her report will help to shape how we approach community activism in the future."

I suspect, in time, Mr Brokenshire will tell us that "taking crime maps to the next level" and "giving the public a single point of contact through the roll out of the 101 number" are great ideas. They are already Home Office policy.

But what about "Bling back" and "Community reward"? The Home Office told me the government was not convinced about the effectiveness of "directives from central government, particularly around anti-social behaviour". But I wonder if the power to implement such policies really could be devolved to local level.

Ministers have always seen the Newlove report as aimed at the grass roots not at themselves. It is a classic example of what the new "post-bureaucratic age" of localism and the Big Society looks like.

Not the usual suspects

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Mark Easton | 13:23 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011


The political potency of tomorrow's anti-cuts march will be decided not just by how many protesters it attracts, but who they are. If the government see a crocodile of what they might regard as "the usual suspects" snaking through London - the trade unions, political opponents, left-wing activists and a few troublemakers up for a bundle - they will breathe relatively easy. Opposition can then be managed in the traditional manner: well-rehearsed political argument and condemnation of any unpleasantness.

Ladies marching in the Cotswolds

What would be scary for ministers is if the march attracts broader opposition, including their own traditional supporters. Then, potentially, the protest becomes a movement - much harder to control.

This week I travelled to a Tory heartland - rural Gloucestershire, where you are as likely to see a red squirrel (not very) as a red rosette. The Conservative-controlled county council has announced cuts of £114m with youth clubs, libraries and day-care centres under threat. Familiar public services may disappear.

In a village, nestling in the Cotswolds, I was greeted by a sight that might well send a shudder down the spine of a young Minister. A regiment of purposeful Gloucestershire ladies were making their way to a kitchen-table meeting. Over tea from a pot and cakes from a stand, they discussed the arrangements for tomorrow. They are planning to join the protest.

"I'm scared of going on a political march" says Chloe Lees, announcing that she has never been on a demo before.

"I don't want to be kettled. I refuse to pee in the street whatever the cause."

Nevertheless, the plans have been made and Chloe will be on a train tomorrow morning with her "Save The Libraries" placard.

"I'm taking my 74-year-old Mum," says Susan Caudron. "This is the only way to make a difference. Now we really have to get out there and show them how we feel."

Eighty-five-year-old Eugenie Summerfield adds her voice:

"I'm not fit enough to be there but I'll be with you in spirit. I'm so angry about what's happening, not just in Gloucestershire but all over the country. I'll be with you all the way."

There is authentic passion in the room. The tea-party in the Cotswolds is not politically motivated, but they have been roused by the threat to the users of familiar and well-loved public services.

"I want to stand up for these people" announces Alice Ross. "That's what I'll be doing when I go to London. I'll be standing up for the 15,000 people who signed the petition, hoping it looks like we're standing 15,000 strong." There is a determined look on her face.

I met up with a local Tory MP, Neil Carmichael, to ask what he would say to the militants in the idyll. Coincidentally, he was cutting the ribbon on a new community centre in the nearby town of Stonehouse - just the kind of Big Society initiative the county council hope might prompt people to come forward and take over the running of threatened libraries and youth clubs.

Tory MP Neil Carmichael

"Go behind me you will see lots of people working hard for their community. They are not marching in protest, they are doing things in action", he told me. "That's what we want to see more of and in this constituency we are seeing it all over the place, and that's really encouraging."

I took the MP's words to the tea-party, but the ladies of Gloucestershire were not impressed. "This is the Big Society and we say no!", Johanna Anderson said. "They should listen to ordinary people like us."

"We all volunteer but you don't expect to run youth services and libraries," echoed Julie Baker. "The Big Society is there but it's not there to run the country in this crazy way."

A recent Ipsos Mori survey found that 45% of Conservative voters think the cuts are being implemented too quickly, but there remains much broader support for the need to reduce the deficit and a resignation about it's consequences. However, even now the cuts have not yet really started to bite. Council plans to restructure and reduce service provision have only recently been announced.

"I'm so worried about the future for our kids, it's awful" says Susan Caudron. "I never thought I'd get to this age and feel so worried about the future."

The ladies of the Cotswolds huddled around a computer, absorbing the TUC's "Tips for New Marchers" as they planned their trip to the capital. If the trains and buses arriving from around the country include many more like them, the politics of the cuts will become very different.

Time to Abandon the Middle Classes

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Mark Easton | 12:30 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


The Sunday papers positively drool over stories about class - a peculiarly British form of navel-gazing that plays to our national prejudices and sense of self.

Acacia avenue street sign

No surprise, then, that yesterday's supplements had cleared acres of space for a survey suggesting that seven out of 10 Brits now describe themselves as 'middle class'.

"So we're ALL middle class now (or so 7/10 think, as climbing the social ladder soars in popularity)" was the Mail on Sunday take on the online poll of 2000 people conducted by BritainThinks.

"The popularity of being middle class appears to seal the victory of 1980s Thatcherism, which championed the values of property ownership and self-reliance that are now nearly universal," the paper concluded.

My concern is that the results of asking people if they regard themselves as middle class may not, actually, tell us very much at all. The point about self-definition is that it relates not only to who we think we are but also to who we think we are not. Identity, our sense of self, implies that we can put a fence around our characteristics and say that those outside the boundary are "not one of us".

I remember the exercise in my school maths lesson where the class had to draw a Venn diagram incorporating eye-colour, hair-colour and height. No-one wanted to be the kid whose features were an isolated island, separate from the mainstream.

Defining oneself as middle class is saying one is not working class or upper class. Virtually no-one in the survey described themselves as 'upper class'. God forbid! I don't know whether any Dukes or minor royals were among the 2,000 respondents, but who would want to associate themselves with a social group whose cultural status is generally thought to have been inherited from the blood or bank balance of Mummy and Daddy? The use of the word "upper" seems to imply arrogance and superiority - quite un-British.

"Working class", a handle accepted by one out of four Britons, has associations with the tribal politics of the 20th Century but also, as the Mail article implies, with lower aspirations. Once the working classes would have dressed differently - blue collar rather than white - and the jobs they did would be manual rather than sedentary. There was a powerful sense of group identity associated with the noble virtues of hard work and the struggle to make ends meet.


The notion of the 'working class' has changed

Today, many of the occupations paying minimum wage are service jobs - call centres, contract cleaning, office security and catering. Low paid workers often wear a uniform, a suit, even a tie. They may be indistinguishable from the middle classes waiting for the bus to the office. The nobility of the proletariat has been diluted in the social emulsion of sameness.

Being middle class in Britain, therefore, is about not being upper or working class. It says I am not some snooty aristocrat, nor am I a class warrior or a couch potato. I have get-up-and-go, determination and spirit. Who wouldn't want to be that?

Which is why I think it is time to abandon this notion of middle class. It is an almost useless expression, so vague that even the BritainThinks pollsters were obliged to sub-divide it.

"The survey is clear that the 71% 'middle class' are not a homogenous group, but fall into six distinctive segments" they claim. How polling companies love their "distinctive segments".

We are introduced to Bargain Hunters and Squeezed Strugglers, Comfortable Greens and Urban Networkers, Deserving Downtimers and Disciplinarians. Political strategists are encouraged to believe that only if they find a message to appeal to the latest manifestation of Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man can they guide their party to victory.

In reading all the stories yesterday, I was reminded of some work done by another polling company, Ipsos MORI, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at attitudes to poverty in 2009 - in the midst of the recession.

Focus groups of working adults from across the income range were assembled. However, "participants demonstrated a strong tendency to place themselves in the 'middle' of the income distribution".

"For most of the participants in our discussion groups, it is people 'like them', whom they perceive to be in the broad 'middle' of the income spectrum, who seem to be undergoing a particularly difficult time. In their words, it is the 'middle band of people' who 'get forgotten', who 'suffer the worse' and who are 'worse off', losing out to both top and bottom."

Ipsos MORI also sub-divided this "middle" group into "Traditional Egalitarians and Traditional Free-marketeers", "The Angry Middle" and "Post-ideological Liberals".

This would seem to be further evidence that the phrase "middle class" is such a catch-all that we might as well ask people whether they are, in yet more sociological jargon, "strivers" or "skivers".

Student visa plans could 'cripple' UK education

Mark Easton | 08:50 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011


An all-party committee of MPs has urged Immigration Minister Damian Green not to go ahead with a series of changes to the student visa system, warning of "potentially calamitous" consequences to an industry worth £40bn a year.

Damian Green

Members of the home affairs select committee today "caution against measures which could be detrimental to a thriving, successful industry" that is "not only economically beneficial to this country but also vital to the UK's international relations".

The committee report amounts to a scathing critique of government plans to try and reduce net immigration by introducing new controls on students applying to study in the UK. The MPs complain of "a policy based on flawed evidence" and urge ministers to rethink proposals that "could cripple the UK education sector".

The government is determined to reduce net migration to the UK from its current level of around 200,000 a year down to tens of thousands. However, since taking office, net immigration has increased, largely because many more students from outside the EU are coming to British colleges, language schools and universities.

Immigration Minister Damian Green told Parliament in January that "taking action on students is particularly important as they make up roughly two thirds of non-European economic area immigrants, and the number of student visas issued has been rising in recent years". However, a few weeks later he told the Commons: "We want to encourage all those genuine students coming here to study at our world-class academic institutions."

This apparent contradiction has led the select committee to accuse the government of "a lack of clarity" over whether the aim was to cap foreign student numbers or simply target "bogus" students and colleges. The prime minister has stated that "we are not currently looking at limits on tier four (student) immigration visas" but the MPs' report expresses concern at "the potential to create significant unintended consequences".


The anxiety is that Britain might lose out on billions of pounds in income from foreign students if it does not appear to be as welcoming as other countries. "UK universities are facing aggressive competition in a market which is vital for their future and for the UK economy", the MPs say, adding that they had already "heard evidence that Australia were launching an aggressive marketing campaign in order to increase their share of the international education market at the expense of the UK".

The committee report states that "the international student market is estimated to be worth £40 billion to the UK economy" and warns that "given the experiences of the USA and Australia", who lost trade after they tightened their student visa systems, "it would be wise for the UK to bear this very much in mind".

Chairman of the committee, Keith Vaz MP, is suggesting the government takes students out of the net migration figures, thus removing the educational sector from ministers' concerns over numbers:

"Students are not migrants. They come from all over the world to study here, contributing to the economy both through payment of fees and wider spending. Whilst we are right to seek to eliminate bogus colleges and bogus students, we need to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and the best... if the door is shut they will simply study elsewhere."

The MPs "strongly recommend" that the government does not demand higher English language qualifications for students applying to a college with "highly trusted" status. They also urge that the post study work route whereby students who finish their course can take a job in the UK "be maintained".

Indeed, they question whether there is a significant problem of bogus students looking to abuse immigration rules.

The information government uses to justify tightening student visa rules "does not in itself prove endemic abuse of the system", the committee says. Mr Vaz argues that "generating policy based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. In the case of international students this could mean a significant revenue and reputational loss to the UK."

One area where government has expressed specific ambition to act is on students who come to the UK to take "sub-degree" courses at English language schools. You may recall my post on this subject which quoted Damian Green telling journalists how he had "discovered" that half of those who come to Britain to study "do not fit with everyone's image of the hard-working student in higher education".

The committee, however, estimates that the foreign students coming to learn English "contribute roughly £1.5 billion to the economy and are estimated to be responsible for 30,000 jobs".

"It is a sector which boosts tourism and provides a vital route for international students to achieve necessary language skills for UK degree courses" they say. "Witnesses repeatedly stressed to us the importance of pathway programmes to UK universities and all of them cited the increase of the required language level as a proposal which could significantly damage the recruitment of international students."

Today's all-party report is clanging alarm bells, sounding klaxons and rattling cages for all it is worth. The MPs accept the need to keep immigration under control and take steps to prevent abuse. But, after reading their document, one is left with the powerful impression that this group of senior parliamentarians fears the government may be about to endanger a key driver of economic growth and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

Questions over youth jobless figures

Mark Easton | 18:16 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011


The prime minister has described youth unemployment figures as "disappointing, once again" with the number of 16-to-24-year-olds out of work rising by 30,000 to 974,000, "the highest since comparable records began in 1992" according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Taken at face value, the data suggest that the unemployment rate for young people rose by 0.8% to 20.6% - also a record high.

But a top economist, while agreeing that the situation is clearly dire, is questioning whether the numbers tell the whole story. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith has also said the headline measure is "misleading" and has suggested the ONS change how it reports levels of youth unemployment.

John Philpott, Chief Economic Advisor to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, asks "is the situation really as unprecedentedly bad as the headline figures suggest?"

In a paper published this month Mr Philpott argues that "the relative scale of youth unemployment is only properly understood in the context of consideration of the transformation of the youth labour market in recent decades resulting from greatly increased participation in post-16 education".

He points out that this has the effect of reducing the proportion of the 16-24 year age cohort active in the labour market, "thereby raising the measured youth unemployment rate for any given level of unemployment".

"In other words, as the economically active supply of young people shrinks relative to the number of young people in the population the youth unemployment rate magnifies the scale of youth unemployment."

So how bad are things really? The first problem is that it is impossible to compare today's unemployment figures with anything before 1992 because of a lack of consistent data. One cannot, for example, compare the current situation with the early 1980s when concern about youth joblessness was just as great.

The next point to bear in mind is that youth unemployment rates are always higher than other cohorts. Usually they are around double the aggregate figure because young people tend to move in and out of jobs before settling down in the labour market ('short-term frictional unemployment' in the jargon) and, as John Philpott puts it, "youth unemployment is ultra sensitive to the economic cycle, rising relatively quickly during recessions when there are fewer entry level job vacancies and when employers cut their least experienced or least productive staff, but falling relatively quickly during periods of economic recovery".

It is "therefore unremarkable", he argues, that we have seen both relatively high and relatively fast-rising youth unemployment in recent hard economic times.

"Nonetheless things do on the face of things appear worse than usual at present, with the youth unemployment rate 2.5 times higher than the average rate of unemployment (7.9%). However, closer examination of the measurement of youth unemployment offers a somewhat different conclusion."

The jobless figures include full-time students who are actively looking for work. There are more than a quarter of a million such people included in the latest unemployment figures. John Philpott says it is "perfectly sensible" to count students because they "have some influence on the degree of wage pressure in the labour market". But he concludes that, with student numbers rising, their inclusion "does once again magnify youth unemployment as an indicator of social distress".

"Excluding them lowers the headline youth unemployment rate for 16-24-year-olds in the final quarter of 2010 from 20.5% to 15.5% and lowers youth unemployment as a proportion of the 16-24 age cohort to 9.4%."

Mr Philpott is not suggesting that all is well with youth unemployment: "young people have been relatively adversely affected by the recession as employers have preferred to retain experienced prime age and older workers." However, his argument does question whether the current situation is really that much worse than previous downturns.

In a letter to the ONS, Iain Duncan Smith makes a similar point. He writes that:

"[I]t is misleading for the 965,000 figure to be used, when nearly 275,000 under-25s counted as ILO unemployed are also full-time students. This is more than one in four of the total and, with staying on rates in education having risen over time, accounts for a significantly larger proportion of overall youth unemployment than was the case twenty years ago."

He concludes by asking that in future the ONS "give more prominence to the number of unemployed people not in full-time study, to ensure that an accurate context is set for the debate on support for young people."

However, David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee has questioned Mr Duncan Smith's motivation:

"Could it be that he is getting his retaliation in first before youth unemployment hits the million milestone? If you want a distraction quibble about the data. [...] It would be better to try and lower youth unemployment rather than fiddle with the statistics."

Midsomer race row

Mark Easton | 13:13 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


The county of Midsomer is, we are told, "the last bastion of Englishness". It is a fictional place set in the present but exhibiting the characteristics of the past - the villages fall victim to medieval levels of violent crime and the residents are exclusively white.

Midsomer Murders

Neil Dudgeon (centre) will take over the central character when the new series begins

Now we learn that one of the creators of ITV's popular detective series Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May, has been suspended for arguing that the lack of cultural diversity on the programme is because "it wouldn't be the English village" if it included ethnic minorities. "It just wouldn't work", he told the Radio Times.

It is interesting that Mr True-May should pick on this word "Englishness" to describe his vision of the rural village because it was exactly the same word that emerged from research into rural attitudes to race in England conducted by academics at Leicester University.

Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland recently published a paper entitled Tackling Rural Racism that used interviews and focus groups to explore the views of white rural residents. It found that "the rural was also often referred to as being the embodiment of 'Englishness'".

"Unfortunately, all too often racist or xenophobic comments were evidenced in the interviews and focus groups, and victims frequently related how they were made to feel unwelcome or were ostracised as 'outsiders'."

Although ethnic minorities are less prevalent in England's rural communities (estimated at around 1.4% compared to 8% or so nationally), the English countryside is certainly not exclusively white. This has led to some concern that those BME residents living in the equivalent of Midsomer may be an invisible group, air-brushed from community life in the same way that black and brown faces are excluded from the cast of Midsomer Murders.

Twenty years ago, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) published a ground-breaking report into attitudes to race in the largely rural South West of England. Keep Them In Birmingham [119KB PDF] took its title from a remark made by a white student on a Plymouth construction course interviewed for the project. The CRE said the findings painted "a disturbing picture of racial prejudice and discrimination directed against ethnic minority residents" in the region.

"What unquestionably exacerbates the problem by reinforcing local prejudice is the presence in the region of large numbers of white migrants from other regions who regard themselves as refugees from multiracialism. In the approving words of a county councillor and college governor: 'People have come here because they want to get away from the problems caused by the coloureds.'"

In 2003 the Observer newspaper interrogated police records of racist incidents to see where they suggested cultural tensions were most acute. "Race attacks are almost 10 times more likely to happen in rural areas" the paper concluded.

"Northumbria tops the list, but is closely followed by Devon, Cornwall and south Wales, where racial crimes affect 1 in 15 and 1 in 16 of the ethnic minority population. Other race crime hotspots are Norfolk, Avon and Somerset, Durham and Cumbria. Between them, the top 10 worst areas in England and Wales for racist incidents are home to just five per cent of the total ethnic minority population."

It is almost a truism to say that those places which are less familiar with ethnic minorities are more likely to be disturbed by their presence. When the Carnegie Trust recently put together its Manifesto for Rural Communities [1.02MB PDF], the report noted that many such places "are poorly equipped to respond to 'newcomers', whether they are minority ethnic households/individuals, migrants or indeed immigrants from urban areas. Local communities are often not aware of 'what it is like for newcomers' and 'newcomers' are often unaware of the culture of the local areas they have moved into."

The 2010 annual report [2.56MB PDF] from Dorset's Racial Equality Council also makes the point that the problems of exclusion and prejudice for ethnic minorities in rural communities have not gone away. "The work that we have done during the last year demonstrated that there has never been a greater need than now", adding that response to a new advocacy project "confirmed our long held belief that many in our communities suffer in silence and are not challenging racist or discriminatory behaviour".

When the New Statesman commissioned an article on rural attitudes to race in 2006, they spoke to Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, a former colleague of mine at the BBC who now runs a pig farm on the Devon/Cornwall borders and markets sausages under the brand The Black Farmer.

"Our parents established beachheads in the cities; it is now up to our generation to move out of those beachheads and claim the rest of Britain as our own" he told the magazine. "If we wait for the climate to change, we will wait for ever."

The theory that the arrival of ethnic minorities and migrant workers will, over time, diminish racist attitudes in the English countryside is matched by a counter-concern that it will increase tensions. It may be that the success of Midsomer Murders, as Brian True-May suggests, relies in part upon its "whiteness", but it paints a portrait of rural England at odds with changing times.

The Leicester University academics Jon Garland and Neil Chakraborti recently put it like this:

"Rural villages are often portrayed as problem-free, idyllic environments characterized by neighbourliness and cultural homogeneity."

The reality, they suggest, is that:

"[V]illage space is not neutral but is instead racialized and contested, and that it is feelings of insecurity among white rural populations, exacerbated by the presence of a markedly different `other', that results in the marginalization of minority ethnic groups from mainstream community activities."

To me, that sounds like an intriguing backdrop to an episode of Midsomer Murders...

Care and the Community

Mark Easton | 16:56 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011


A few weeks ago Dave moved his 90-year-old mother Olive into a care home in Newquay in Cornwall. It is a familiar story - his mum was about to be discharged from hospital and he urgently needed to find somewhere he could trust to look after her.

Village church

Power is moving away from central government towards local people

The council suggested a place: it had two-stars on the government rating and the leaflets looked promising. When Dave visited, all appeared well and eventually the time came when he had to let go of Olive's hand and leave her in the care of strangers.

You can guess what happened next.

"The experience she suffered was unbelievable," he told me. "She was left unattended for long periods of time, crying 24-hours a day, meals being dished up cold, no-one coming to see her and getting left in her room cold - absolutely horrendous."

Now Olive is in a home where she feels safe and happy. But Dave believes it was ongoing government changes to the system for monitoring care homes that left his mother exposed to neglect and maltreatment. Ministers are pushing ahead with plans to replace regular national inspection with a "localism" model, relying on residents and their families alerting the authorities to problems.

"Most ordinary people won't want to be the whistleblowers," Dave told me. "They will sit back and take it because they don't want to get involved, they don't want to cause a fuss and a stir. I got very upset over the care my mother was getting and the things being done to her. I had to take action. She was one person among 36 people. There are 35 other people still in that home who must be suffering the same kind of treatment."

Dave's point goes to the heart of the debate over localism. It is less an argument about whether it is sensible to give "power to the people", and more about whether people are ready and willing to use that power.

"People have become infantilised by their relationship with central government," Care Services Minister Paul Burstow told me in his office at the Department of Health this week.

"There's an assumption that somehow from behind a desk in Whitehall we can flick a switch and make things totally different and improve quality overnight. That's never been the case. The last government spent 13 years trying to run both the health service and increasingly care services from this place, from Richmond House in Whitehall. It didn't work."
As the government's framework for adult social care explains:
"We can no longer rely on top-down programmes or performance management ...the balance of power is shifting dramatically - away from the centre and towards councils managing their own future, and empowered local communities holding them to account."

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is the reformed regulator of all health and adult social care in England. Everything from dentists to cosmetic clinics must now meet a list of "essential standards" in order to be registered. Gone are the days when dedicated care home inspectors make regular visits to every facility, checking safety and issuing stars for quality.

Dave and his mother

Dave has had to put his trust in strangers to care for his mother

As the CQC explains: "We rely on people who use services and those who care for and treat them to tell us about the quality and safety of services. This feedback is a vital part of our dynamic system of regulation which places the views, experiences, health and wellbeing of people who use services at its centre."

The old system was never perfect - assessments could be out of date almost before the ink was dry on the inspection report and local authorities had been campaigning for greater control - but there are concerns that the new "dynamic" approach is untested and may be unsafe.

I went to see the Relatives and Residents Association at its headquarters in north London. The charity's helpline was ringing off the hook with worried individuals trying to get advice on how to navigate to a safe harbour for a loved-one. Chief Executive, Judy Downey, points out that national regulation was introduced after failures in local monitoring led to a string of scandals.

"We would never have had scandals in care homes or in any residential provision if the local theory had worked. Why didn't they know, why didn't they report it, why didn't we all hear about until it was much too late, until there were dead bodies or something really tragic happening to those people? We set up a national system of inspection which everyone agreed was a really good way forward, but the trouble is it has never been allowed to bed down. It has been very easy to dismiss it as not working before it was given a chance."

English councils are expected to improve their monitoring of care home standards just as they make cuts to adult social services, squeezing commissioning budgets and looking to find efficiencies in backroom quality assurance operations. The head of CQC, Dame Jo Williams, recently made the point herself: "The providers will be asking themselves: what can I do to cut corners?"

It is not just central government inspection of care homes which is being cut back. Ministers have also scrapped official assessments of how well local authorities commission care services. In future, councils' responsibility to ensure good standards will be monitored by a new local consumer champion HealthWatch, which itself relies on local authority funding. The NHS Confederation has warned of "inherent conflicts of interest" with a council funded body scrutinising its paymasters.

The coalition stress the importance of "choice" in driving up standards of public services, but in adult social care, even the CQC accepts that, with the abandonment of the star-rating system, consumers no longer have "an easy at-a-glance view" of the quality of care homes in their area. There are plans for an "excellence rating" but this will be voluntary and providers will be obliged to pay for the inspection.

The chief executive of the not-for-profit provider Anchor Housing, Jane Ashcroft, suspects the fee might be around £10,000 for a mid-sized home:

"At a time when funds are under pressure paying for assessment twice makes no sense. What we want to do is put money into services for our residents not pay for another layer of bureaucracy."

Ministers remain convinced that localism is not so much a gamble as an opportunity for the care home sector, that networks and systems will develop from the grass-roots to drive up standards and root out problems.

But just as Dave had to let go of his mother's hand and trust in strangers, so localism requires us to let go of the state's grasp and trust in our neighbours.

Graduating for the 21st Century

Mark Easton | 13:04 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Are graduates the equivalent of oil in the 20th Century and coal in the 19th? I was struck by this question as I headed for an ONS conference on labour market statistics in Westminster this morning while reading my colleague Sean Coughlan’s interesting piece on the knowledge economy.

The debate about university tuition fees is in danger of overshadowing a more fundamental shift that will decide the future job prospects, economic security and well-being of the British population. There is a rapidly expanding global market of highly skilled labour for which the minimum entry ticket will be a degree. While traditional low-skilled and manufacturing jobs are disappearing, the raw material of the knowledge economy will be graduates.

I drew a simple graph for my presentation this morning which makes the point, I think.

Graph showing low skilled workers v knowledge sector workers

Go back to 1984 and ONS labour market data shows that 44% of UK jobs were unskilled or low skilled jobs. Now it is about 27%. People working in the knowledge industries accounted for 31% of jobs in 1984. Now it is close to 45%.

Knowledge services have become 68% of what we sell to the world. Yes, that’s right. More than two-thirds of our exports are know-how.

Unemployment figures in the depths of the downturn in 2009 showed that among graduates working in the knowledge economy - financial consultants, business managers, lawyers - the proportion claiming job-seekers allowance was 1%. Among those who usually worked in unskilled admin jobs, the figure was 37%. Media claims that we were in the midst of a “white-collar recession” proved to be wide of the mark.

I would like to offer some unsophisticated, but, I think, broadly accurate historical perspective to this. It goes like this:

Economic success in the 19th Century was built upon a mixture of invention and largely unskilled labour. Britain was really good at this – moving millions of people with little or no education from fields to factories and driving the industrial revolution. It was a formula upon which an empire was created.

Economic success in the 20th Century was built upon a mixture of invention and technically skilled labour. Britain found it hard to adapt to the new rules clinging to a belief that its traditional approach had won it an empire and if only we could be true to those principles we would be great again. One consequence of this conviction was that, at the end of the 20th Century the UK found itself with a higher proportion of low-skilled and unskilled workers than most other developed countries.

In 2006, a government review reported that “as a result of low skills, the UK risks increasing inequality, deprivation and child poverty, and risks a generation cut off permanently from labour market opportunity”. More than a third (35%) of adults were found to have low or no skills, double the proportion in competitors such as the US, Canada, Germany and Sweden.

An example of this anti-technocratic mentality, I think, is evident in the contrast between the ambition and the reality of the Education Act of 1944. The legislation introduced three types of state secondaries: grammar schools for the intellectual and academic, technical schools for engineers and scientists and modern schools to give less-gifted children practical skills for manual labour and home management. It was recognition that 20th Century development required specific investment in technical and vocational skills.

Such was the lack of priority and money given to technical schools that very few were ever opened. Instead, state education reinforced the divide between the educated elite and the rest, helping create a schools system in Britain that still produces greater levels of educational inequality than almost any other in the developed world.

Other industrialised nations, meanwhile, were spending heavily in the technical skills of their young people. By 1975, only 0.5% of British secondary school pupils were in technical schools compared to 66% of German youngsters.

However, we do have a chance to redeem ourselves in the 21st Century: the rules are changing again. The successful formula for developed nations like Britain will be a combination of innovation and highly skilled workers in the knowledge economy.

The United Kingdom has in-built advantages as the global knowledge economy takes shape: an historic tradition of academic excellence with some genuinely world-class universities; the language of international trade still tends to be English; Britain has an unrivalled financial and business services sector.

But the concern must be that we are still hampered by dewy-eyed nostalgia for the days of empire and a bi-polar view of society shaped by the adversarial structures which define our politics, justice and commerce.The backs of three graduates

Some commentators argue that a university education should be restricted to an academic elite, others that we risk missing out on the development of a global knowledge economy if we hold back.

Sean’s article quotes the Universities Minister David Willetts saying: "Developed economies are already highly dependent on universities and if anything that reliance will increase."

It is a view that is prevalent around the world. For each Briton who graduates there are at least 20 Chinese and Indian graduates jostling for work in the global marketplace. Not every Indian degree is equivalent to a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. But then not every British degree is either.

Here is a table from the OECD’s “Education at a Glance” document which makes sobering reading. I would ask you to focus on column 3 and column 8.

Table showing trends in tertiary graduation rates (1995-2005)

If we look at the UK, we can see that in 2000, the proportion of the population in their early 20s with a degree was 37%. By 2005 the figure had risen to 39%.

Now have a look what happened in some of our major competitors during the same period. Norway went from 37% to 41%; Italy 19% to 41%; Netherlands 35% to 42%; Denmark 37% to 46%; Poland 34% to 45%; Iceland 33% to 56%.

Just processing lots of people through what may be meaningless degrees is not enough, of course. But if the UK is going to do well in the 21st Century, it needs to produce the right kind of knowledge workers, to recognise the skills and abilities that will be most sought after by the global economy.

Having enough of the right kind of graduates may well be as important to Britain’s future prosperity as oil or coal or gold or iron was in the past.

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